By Suma Varughese
We’ve suffered the scarcity of the socialist years and surfeited on the excesses of the consumerist age. perhaps it is time to draw a balance, and arrive at the ethical and intelligent approach of thrift, which can save the environment, safeguard our highest ideals, and knit us closer into community kinship
“And so we can say that the industrial economy’s most-marketed commodity is satisfaction, and that this commodity, which is repeatedly promised, bought, and paid for, is never delivered. On the other hand, people who have much satisfaction do not need many commodities.” – Wendell Berry in The Whole Horse in The Art of the Commonplace
A long time ago, when I worked in the mainstream media editing a lifestyle magazine, I used to have an office car. Since I didn’t know how to drive, I got myself a driver and every time I went out anywhere, I used to think what a bulky unit the car, the driver and I formed. I was always worried about finding parking for the car, and my conscience smote because while I enjoyed myself at some society do or the other, my driver was killing time somewhere.
Soon after, I left mainstream altogether and joined up with Life Positive. The car went back to the company. My reaction was one of pure relief. I felt amazingly light travelling on my own by train or by walk, footloose and fancy free. And there were innumerable perks to the situation. I did not have to worry about polluting the environment, and plus, I was not alienated from the aam junta. I was not only privy to the misery rife in suburban railway stations, but was also part of the vibrant train culture with its bonhomie and quick friendships. I also saved a packet in terms of the driver’s salary. In other words, win, win, win win.
When a situation seems to generate advantages in so many areas of our life, when all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fit in, then we can be sure that our compass is showing due north, that we are moving in the right direction. We are encountering a first principle, and if we follow it, a path will open up for us that will lead us home. Because life is meant to be holistic, conflict-free, effortlessly right and utterly simple.
The simple life has been one such path for me. I have been travelling long on it, and have a very long way still to go, but the path has integrated my values with my life, and has enabled me to live in harmony with my highest goals and the larger good. I am now ready to move into a higher state still and that is thrifty living. The main difference that I see between simple living and thrifty living is in the details. Simple living dictates the lifestyle, but thrift dictates the life. Having decided to stay with essentials and live simply, thrift helps us to maximise our resources, and make the most of them. Thrift adds a spin to simplicity and makes it fun.
Says Suchitra Tiwari (name changed), a 50-plus home-maker who elevates thrift to a high art, “Thrift is such a creative way to live. It gives me great satisfaction to make something worthwhile out of what would be confined to waste.” Suchitra converts spare wood into amazing knickknacks that include a mural, planters, and wastepaper baskets. Broken mugs are reassembled with colourful M-seal, and converted into toothbrush holders. Old doorposts are converted into avant-garde frames for paintings and wall hangings. An unused airconditioning window is deftly converted into a showpiece. Wedding, Diwali and brithday cards are carefully freed of their decorative elements which are reused as gift tags. Embroidered motifs on worn-out clothing are rescued and given several new avatars. “If they are in good condition, I may use them for another outfit; if they are slightly worn-out I might put them on a cushion which does not require to be washed so much, and if they are really in poor shape, then I might frame them as a showpiece.” Suchitra’s supple, agile mind supplies endless possibilities, and ensures ongoing transformation of all her resources. She also points out one more advantage to her many thrift projects. She gives employment to artisans and craftsmen, “which I love doing.” Businesswoman Latha Tanna (name changed), is equally passionate about thrift, particularly when it comes to food. A creative and enterprising cook, Latha can make masterpieces out of leftovers. She says, “When my brother came to visit from the US he was bowled over by a malai methi vegetable I made from left-over scrambled vegetables. It’s interesting to explore and make something with a different texture and colour from an earlier dish.”
In Latha’s house nothing is wasted. Leftover bajra rotis are converted into a tasty dahi dish. Left-over chutney is washed out and added to the next vegetable curry. Vessels containing fried food are carefully rubbed out with flour, which is then used to make chappatis. “You not only reuse the oil, but you clean the vessel too, which means you use less soap to wash it,” she says knowledgeably. She adds, “The fundamental motivation is to honour and respect everything you have.”
The ability to be thrifty is a high state of mind for it denotes a deep ability to care. It is only when we can respect and care for our resources that we will be inspired to put them to creative use and reuse. Thrift also comes from superb self-control, the ability to draw limits for one’s desires and needs, and a deep ability to focus, for only then do the possibilities arrive in consciousness. And it calls for a dynamic active nature that will enable one to overcome inertia and attempt proactive solutions. Thrift also bespeaks a flexible mind that can look beyond the manifestation of one form to the unmanifest potential contained within it.
Little wonder then that thrift is nature’s signature tune. We simply need to study nature to recognise how wise and ethical a concept thrift is. Nature uses everything to create something else. Everything dies and degenerates into soil which is the creative tabula rasa for the magnificent symphony of life. Man lives on plant and animal food and is himself fodder for worms when he dies. Water is condensed and drawn up as vapour which then converts itself to rain and comes back to impregnate the earth with new life. Plants and trees bear fruit and die and out of the fruit fresh plants and trees grow. An eternal and sustaining cycle plays itself out in every natural phenomenon.
What a sharp contrast to this prudent and thrifty model is our present blowsy and overblown way of life. Extravagance, excess and waste characterise a culture fuelled by consumerism and capitalism. Urban India is on a feeding frenzy for more cars, foreign holidays, branded goods, gourmet food, designer clothes and footwear, even as we throw out earlier models like spoilt children. At one level this is understandable. For too long we have stood like starving children with our noses pressed against the glass pane of Western affluence. We needed to know what it was like on the other side. Now we do. And we need to ask ourselves if we are substantially happier, healthier, more peaceful and more harmonious as a people than we were before? If we are not, then it is time to travel some more. Our journey is not over.
At the same time, the party is more or less getting over everywhere. A food crisis is threatening a world complacent with excesses. And in India, inflation, fuelled by soaring oil prices, is making life more and more difficult for the common man.Perhaps if we do not consciously shift to thrift today, we may be forced to tomorrow. One has no intention whatsoever to be alarmist, but life is obdurate in making us learn lessons, and learning to say enough is one lesson that we have long lingered over.
Thrift is the way
Perhaps the fundamental reason to leave behind consumerism/capitalism is that it simply cannot hold together. It is riven by massive contradictions that sooner or later will consume us. In the first place there is the reality that our resource base – planet earth – is finite. How on earth are we supposed to fulfil our endless desires on such a base? It cannot be sustained. President Bush recently observed that India and China were becoming more prosperous which was good because it meant that the US had more markets for their goods but which also meant that we were eating more (thereby fuelling the food crisis, he meant). The fact is that you cannot have one without the other. If you want booming markets you must also expect to have shortages in everything as people step up their demands.
And it’s hopeless to imagine that the solution to this problem lies in finding another planet in which to forage on. The question that it does not solve is this – is a locust culture really good for us? Must we keep stripping planet after planet in order to assuage our insatiable appetite? Or can we simply cultivate self-control? It is now increasingly difficult to ignore the cost of consumerism on the environment. Mahatma Gandhi, that apostle of thrifty living, said it well, “The earth has enough for all our needs but not enough for even one man’s greed.” With practically the whole world turning voracious, is it any wonder that the planet is on its knees, gasping for life? It is important to recognise that we live in an ethical universe, and there are consequences to unethical living. Our present wasteful way of life is based on two specious economic theories imported from the US. One is the use-and-throw philosophy based on the premise that in order to keep demand high one must have inbuilt obsolescence. In other words, one strives for shoddiness, not excellence. Today, we dispose of everything from tissues to pens, clothes to computers, fridges to cars. Fuelled by a technologically fast-paced industry, things get obsolete the moment we buy them, and soon the restless mind fabricates a reason to dispose of this toy, and buy a new model. Can we ever hope to win this game? And what is the cost of this seesaw between accumulation and disposal? The other is the equally pernicious belief that in order to keep an economy flourishing it is necessary to spend and not to save. Once again, this philosophy irresponsibly persuaded people to spend not just the money they had but even what they did not have, through credit cards and bank loans. Today, America is strapped in debt both individually and as a nation. And Americans are reeling under its stress.
In his popular blog, Zen habits, writer Leo Babauta talks about how he got into severe credit card debt, and finally tore up his credit card. His blog is a chronicle of how he managed to get out of debt, by pruning, simplifying and rationalising his lifestyle. In other words, by turning thrifty.
Today, downsizing and decluttering have become close to a religion in the US, as Americans recognise that consumerism has vastly complicated their lives, and brought them no closer to happiness, health, harmony or peace of mind. Elaine St James, the popular author of books like Simplify Your Life and Simplify Your Worklife speaks for a generation when she writes, “Like many others of our generation, my husband, Gibbs, and I bought into the Bigger is Better and More is Better Yet philosophies of the 1980s. We had the big house, the big car, most of the conveniences and many of the toys of the typical yuppie lifestyle. Then we gradually began to realise that, rather than contributing to our lives, many of these things complicated them far more than we had been willing to admit.”
Having come to that realisation, St James promptly scheduled a weekend retreat, did some hard thinking, and re-engineered her life. She threw away her planner, sold the house, the boat and most of the gadgets she had assembled, moved to a place close to her place of work, scaled down her entertainment, and undertook various other sane steps to get her life in control once again.
Time magazine recently carried an article on a new fad sweeping the US, the 100 Thing Challenge, a grass-roots movement started by Dave Bruno, 37, an online entrepreneur, in which people are attempting to whittle down their possessions to a mere 100 items. In his blog, guynameddave.com, Bruno chronicles his journey to freedom from stuff. He says, “Why am I doing the 100 Thing Challenge? Because I want to challenge stuff! I believe that run-away consumerism is making many of us narcissistic jackasses. It dulls our wits. Keeps us from thinking and acting like we understand what’s really important.”
A spiritual reason
For the seeker or for anyone even remotely on the spiritual track, thrift is a natural corollary. Once we make the fundamental realisation that we are spirit having a human experience, we are able to look beyond the material plane of existence. We cease to believe that life is only about making more and buying more. We know there is something more to life than this, and that something, in fact, is the priority. It is this perception that can give us the philosophical premise to make a shift towards thrift. In my own case, I would say that the fundamental reason for embracing the simple life is a spiritual one. Through a spiritual awakening experienced many years ago, I learnt that the purpose of life was growth and happiness. Subsequently, the idea of pursuing material objectives such as money, fame, power or pleasure, lost its conviction. Growth and happiness became the priority, and naturally they led to a way of life shorn of all but the essential. Writes the great writer, Henry David Thoreau in his book, Walden, a journal of his experiment in simple living, “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor.”
Freeing ourselves from desire is the fundamental quest of the seeking game which means that we will naturally eliminate more and more from our lives. We may never become ascetics but if we are true to the spiritual path we will establish control over how much we spend and on what. We may opt for an exquisite and elegant way of life, but even that life will have thrift woven into it because we are the masters of what we use, and not the media or the neighbour next door. We are simply not manipulatable. Says writer and former editor of LP Plus, Swati Chopra, referring to the lifestyle she shares with her mother, “We buy whatever we need, but we don’t buy just because we can, or because it’s available, or because that’s what we are encouraged to do by the advertisers. I think it means we haven’t bought into materialism – life isn’t just about earning, buying and spending. And it means our carbon footprint remains as small as possible. I do feel the kind of lifestyle my mother represents, which is really the old Indian way of life, now needs to be studied and adopted consciously as the new, ecologically aware, sustainable way of living on this earth without destroying it.” Says cartoonist and radiologist, Hemant Morparia, “Buying things is a capitalist notion to make one unhappy. Most of us use just five per cent of what we have. Look at books and DVDs. We buy them, read them once and then store them for the next 20 years. Why not distribute them instead? Sharing creates community, avoids alienation and thwarts the advertiser.”
By putting us in touch with the true source of happiness, contentment and peace, spirituality will help us swing away from foolish acquisition towards a wiser, more balanced way of life that has room for genuine exploration and enjoyment, but none at all for waste and extravagance born out of the need to forge an identity. Says nutritionist Naini Setalvad, “Thrift is not about money saving or penny pinching but about saving our air, water and ecology. It is for a better earth.”
Says Mukta Hegde, a Bangalore-based freelance editor and writer, “Thrifty living is not about denying yourself the pleasures of life, but making the most of the resources that you have. Actually, it is all about living smartly and enjoying life. ” Writer Shalan Savur, turns lyrical on the subject as she rhapsodises, “When you live voluntarily in thrift, ah! what a wonderfully vast world opens out to you! When the mind yields to your urging and gracefully and completely surrenders its greed to thrift, the silence it experiences is stunning. Greed is rowdy, restless and destructive. Thrift is quiet, restful and productive. Greed destroys our natural inner and outer habitat – our equilibrium, our health, our ecology, our harmony with existence. Greed speaks the rough, gruff language of conquest and acquisition. Thrift sings the soft, silken lyrics of accord and co-existence.”
Another compelling reason to turn thrifty is because it is part of our heritage. We have always been a thrifty people, save for these few giddy years. Our parents lived careful, frugal lives, wasting not even one needless paisa. Yes, this was often because money was so scarce, but the important thing is that they created a technology that we can now use.Says Swati, “My mother is a philosopher of thrift! She gets it from her mother, my nani, because they lived in Almora, which was a small hill town when my mother was growing up. My nani wove her own cloth, shawls and rugs, collected herbs and dispensed home remedies to anybody in the neighbourhood who was sick, and grew her own vegetables behind her home.
“In our home, nothing is wasted. Old clothes are either given away, or turned into rags and dusters. My mother even stitched some of my skirts (which I don’t wear any more) into bags for groceries, and shoes and chappals whose soles are still good are refurbished with strong cloth on top and used or given to those who may need them. Water is never wasted. For instance, she never washes vegetables in running water. They are washed in a bucket, and the water then used for watering our plants.” My own mother, who brought up six children on a very limited income, is my role model for thrift. She probably possesses half-a-dozen sets of clothes and will under no circumstance increase the store. She mends and remends her blouses and saris until they are threadbare, and then they are used around the house. I still remember a time when times were hard, and she walked over a mile carrying a five-kilo bag of rice and other groceries just to save on bus fare. Our parents and the generations ahead of them were hardy, schooled in self-denial, discipline, self-control and reverence for all life. Graphic designer Aneesh Kutuppan recalls that in Kerala, grain was considered sacred, and if even one grain of rice had fallen in the process of washing or transporting home, it was rescued and used. Contrast this with the modern disrespect for food manifested in uncivilised conduct such as hurling lemon pies at each other (food as sport) or the latest move, to convert food into ethanol or fuel for vehicles. In India Annapurna (the goddess of food) is always sought to be propitiated, and therefore food has always been seen as sacred, thereby increasing the reverence for resources.
Many communities have their own way of practising thrift and ensuring that a little goes a long way. The Gujarati community is well-known for its habit of buying annual supplies of grain during the time of harvest, and then preserving them ingeniously. Says Latha, “Part of the reason for doing this is thrift but it is also about getting the best quality grain. Rice is usually bought in the months of December and January, stored with boric powder to safeguard against pests, and allowed to grow old as old rice is considered to be easier on digestion. Tur dal is bought in the month of March, channa dal in the month of February, and stored with dried neem leaves to protect against weevils. Wheat is bought in April and preserved by rubbing with castor oil.
“Masalas like haldi, dhania, jeera, methi and hing are stored in April. During all these months, there is abundant sun, so these supplies are sunned thoroughly, and stored in airtight compartments. The scoops used to transfer these stores to jars for every day use are required to be completely dry. Our mother used to din this fact into my sisters’ and my ears. Also, when you fill it in, you press it so that air pockets are flushed out. The supplies are then stored in sunny, airy places, and, of course, the mistress of the house conducts periodic checks.” Unsurprisingly, their supplies never decay or go rancid, and they keep themselves immune to fluctuating prices.
The Joint Family
Another lesson in thrift management that one can learn from traditional India is the concept of the joint family. It is no secret that communities that foster the joint family system (the Gujaratis and Marwadis) enjoy a higher quality of life than the rest of us, mainly because they save so much more on durables such as houses – one spacious house accommodates all. Consumer goods such as cars, a/cs and fridges are also rationalised since there are no separate households to cater to. Cooking is centralised and therefore economical as everything is bought at wholesale rates. Even holidays are more economical since hoteliers will slash down rates when a clan of 50-odd members descend upon them.
The joint family is a metaphor for communal sharing that is at the very heart of how thrift can best be obtained. In the earlier days when conveniences were rare, it was not uncommon for neighbours to gather in one house to watch Doordarshan’s Sunday movie and thereby enjoy a sociable evening. When we needed to use phones we used to go either to a local shop or to the house of one of the few neighbours privileged to own one. A parish priest in my community waxed nostalgic about growing up in a simple Kerala village. Not everyone had access to good clothes, so silk saris and the like were shared, going from hand to hand each time one had a wedding to attend. When rice ran scarce, one simply borrowed from a neighbour, and when they ran short, you lent a hand. This kind of communal living never lets you lose sight of the fact that living is a joint enterprise, and that you need one another. Today, wrapped in a bubble brought about by material self-sufficiency, we falsely believe that we can get by without needing others, until, of course, a crisis shows us otherwise. The spiritual truth that we are one, expressed in that wonderful Vedic saying, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakkam (the universe is one family), will hopefully bring more and more of us towards a sense of community, and towards living a life that is light on the earth and on our pockets. Because eventually thrift is about being free. Thrift frees us from the treadmill of making more money to keep up with increasing needs and desires. It frees us to do what we want to for a living, and spend our time furthering our spiritual growth. Thrift enables us to lead rich lives in ways that are more than material.
Vijaya Venkat, the dynamic founder of Health Awareness Centre, an organisation that promotes holistic solutions to health and life, was inspired to create this path after a stint at working with the Narmada Bachao Andolan. It brought about a lasting disillusionment with modern topdown and head-oriented solutions and a deep respect for the innate wisdom of nature. She says, “”If man continues to feel he is entitled to resources, he is only hastening his doom. If something is accessible we need to ensure that it continues to be.” Vijaya emphasises a regimen of natural food like fruits and vegetables to heal oneself and is completely against the use of modern medicine, which she sees as destructive. Local, seasonal foods are emphasised and packaged food abjured, thus ensuring health through thrifty earth-saving ways. No wonder, her motto is health care is self-care is earth care.
Borrowing a leaf from her book, another wondrous way to live thriftily is to take as much from nature as we can possibly manage, instead of resorting to expensive man-made alternatives. In the old days, cowdung coated the floors of village huts and ensured that the floors were antiseptic and healthy to sleep on. Teeth were brushed with neem twigs or the ashes from wood fires. These wood fires themselves were usually made from the waste from gardens like twigs, fallen leaves and so on, and we cooked our meals without the use of fossil fuel. One grew one’s own fruits and vegetables which meant that fruits were free instead of being ridiculously expensive as they are today. In Kerala, for instance, there is an embarrassment of riches in summer when jackfruits hang fat and heavy on their tree trunks with no takers because everyone has had a surfeit. Again, one washed one’s hair with shikakai or soap nuts, shampoo being as yet an unheard of luxury. We looked to nature to provide everything, including packaging. I still remember how train journeys from Kerala were enlivened by podhi chor (packed food) basically consisting of rice, a buttermilk curry, some fried mutton or a piece of fried fish and a vegetables thoran, all packed in a generous length of banana leaf that has been passed over a flame to ensure that it does not split. The memory of these packed meals still tingle my taste-buds today.
Perhaps it is worth investigating how we can incorporate these ways into our modern lives, and consciously return to nature in whatever way we can. Some thrift measures are eminently employable, like buying wholesale, for instance. Says Mukta Hegde, “Each year, a week before the school starts, my Mumbai friend, Vidya, marches off to the wholesale market at Abdul Rehman Street. She buys all school supplies needed, from stationery (boxes of easily lost items like erasers and pencils) to monsoon gear, and comes home with a triumphant grin on her face. The same schedule is repeated just before her children’s birthdays. From return gifts, to decorations, to wrapping paper, it is all bought wholesale including minor items ike clips and rubber bands.”
And we can always do without. Adds Mukta, “When the prices of onions hit the roof a few months ago, I simply stopped buying them, and proceeded to make delicious onion-less dishes until the prices came down. I have learnt to make one vegetable, say potato, in 10 different ways with different ingredients. So, when one item became expensive I simply substitute with another recipe. Of course, my family welcomes every style of cooking – Gujarati, South Indian, Sindhi, Maharashtrian!”
Then there is the imperative of keeping a budget. Unless we know what we are spending on and how much, we will not be able to prune out the needless. There are several websites these days that specialise in giving tips on cutting costs and staying afloat. Check them out.
Suchitra Tiwari has an ingenious way of keeping control of what she spends and that is through maintaining packets for different needs. The first tier of packets is for necessities such as provisions, salaries of her domestic staff, household bills and charity as well.The second tier is for clothes, toiletries and entertainment, the third is for little luxuries like holidays. Every month she ransfers fixed amounts into these packets and ensures she does not extend expenditure on any of these. If anything is left it is carried over to the next month. Her annual packets include Diwali expenses and for when her US-based son visits. “I put in a few hours of work every month, but it leaves me free of tension for the rest of the month.”
As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The earth has enough for everyone’s needs but not even for one man’s greed.”
We will leave you here to make your own way along the thrift path, cutting and adjusting your cloth to your own circumstances and interests. Good luck and happy living. We welcome your comments and suggestions on this article.
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